Published in Issue 16 of Visionary Tongue, 2002.
For a long time, the sea had been crossed only by screaming gulls, but one evening as the sun began to set, a small boat with a white sail drifted between the rows of needle sharp rocks and into the shadow of the towering cliffs. A man stood tall like a prophet in the prow of his vessel, his silvery blond hair billowing about him. He stared expectantly up at the crumbling settlement that perched above the sea. He smiled to himself as he drifted with the wind, but his smile was cold, and his eyes were as grim as the choppy waters. Then, once the village was passed, he spied the old crooked house and its spreading gardens and he laughed aloud. This must be the place.
It seemed as if Cliff House stood at the end of the world. This was the way of things now: cities, towns and villages had become isolated, as separate from one another as countries and continents. The village around Cliff House was ancient, but had long been forgotten by the outside world. The houses had crumbled away to nothing, while the sea slowly ate at the cliffs. One day, the rusting fairground had fallen away from the land and now it reared monstrously from the waves. In time seaweed, salt crystals and barnacles had covered it, turning the sad, corroding merry-go-round horses into magnificent, magical sea creatures. Steeds for Neptune and the mermaids. All the villagers were dead or had fled. Only Cliff House remained; a paradise in the wasteland.
The Blood family had lived in Cliff House for centuries. They were a family who, at one time, had been notorious for their wealth, their history of insanity and the twins they produced in every generation – always a boy and a girl. Although the world was falling apart around them, Gabrielle and Raphael Blood continued to live in the manner to which their ancestors had become accustomed. To the twins, this meant taking hemp and opium, and being beautiful, inbred and vicious until the day they died.
Cliff House was surrounded by hedges of rose briars, nettles and barbed wire. The twins had two black hounds with red eyes and slavering tongues to protect them from outsiders. Their garden was wild and crooked, falling into the sea. It was filled with mutating topiaries, statues, wind-chimes and curious little summerhouses and gazebos. An uncanny place, filled with eyes. Raphael kept cats and they prowled around the gardens claiming one-armed, decapitated statues for their own, filling the gardens with their scents and the sounds of their yowling.
Through the maze of statues and topiary it was possible to come upon great banks of lupins and daffodils; hogweeds and briars; shimmering masses of pink willowherb; ponds choked with lilies and acid green algae; herb gardens neatly planted with sage, marjoram, valerian and all the other herbs Gabrielle thought would give her sweet dreams. The garden was strange, all askew.
The house was the same; a perfect reflection of the twins’ combined personalities: a place of dark, ugly furniture; strange empty rooms; cobwebs; twisted candelabras; burnt-down candles; antique lace and moth eaten, velvet draperies. There were wasps’ nests in the back rooms, and the cellars were filled with vintage, dark red wines and rats. The twins let flowers die in cracked vases until the petals turned papery. They kept butterflies in glass jars and painted contorted, dark portraits of one another. They played peculiar old stringed instruments and left archaic books face down on the floor with their spines bent and broken. The long corridors stretched away into perfect, inky darkness. Sometimes there were only two candles burning in the whole house.
The twins lived mainly in the attics. Here, they thrived with the darkness and dust. They breathed it in and then out onto everything they touched.
Gabrielle and Raphael Blood were named after angels and they looked almost like their namesakes; golden-haired, blue-eyed and perfectly turned out in dark silks, velvet and lace. They went everywhere together, as if bound by some invisible chain. Gabrielle was the leader and she led her quieter, perhaps more dangerous brother through numerous indiscretions.
The twins had no family. As far as they knew, they were the last of their line and now it seemed the Blood family was destined to be swept forever from the world. And yet, in the dusty old books of family history, they had read of ancestral relatives who had left Cliff House in order to marry into other families, to fight in the War or to make their fortune in some far off city. Someone, somewhere, must have survived to generate a second great dynasty of Bloods. Often, the twins talked of finding these people, but they were afraid to leave Cliff House. Beyond it, lay the savage moors where the roads were overgrown. Only peddlers travelled there now and even they were becoming fewer and fewer. The forests and wild animals were creeping back. The land was wild and the people who haunted it were wilder. The world was full of distorted folk; victims of the War. It was better to stay at Cliff House where it was safe. And besides, the twins were secretly proud of the tragedy of being last.
They lived alone, save for Hump, their hunch-backed servant. Sometimes peddlers rested overnight on their wanderings between settlements, but they never stayed for longer than one night. The twins made other people uncomfortable. Raphael watched them unblinkingly, while Gabrielle asked incessant questions. Sometimes it seemed that the twins could talk to one another without opening their mouths.
The peddlers were always eager to tell stories of the twins. They felt that talking of it cleansed them of whatever poisons the occupants of Cliff House had breathed onto them. The twins were so beautiful and golden, while everyone else in the world was crippled or deformed in some way. It seemed unnatural. When Gabrielle wore Raphael’s clothes, the peddlers could not tell which twin was which.
One man had stayed in Cliff House on the night the twins’ parents had died. He had heard movements in the night and had barred his door. In the morning he had found the twins standing dry-eyed over the bodies of their parents. They had smiled identical smiles and told him it was their birthday. They were sixteen now and had grown up. They would be quite all right on their own. Their manner of speaking had chilled the man’s blood. His dreams were still haunted by the way they had stood in the doorway to watch him leave.
So although the twins knew almost nothing of the world beyond, there were those who knew about them.
And one morning, watching from their garden, the twins saw a boat drifting slowly across the sea towards them. A single figure stood tall in the prow. The twins observed in silence. They believed in sea gods and mermaids and in lost kingdoms beneath the waves. They believed there really was a better place.
Raphael chewed his bottom lip in suspicion, while Gabrielle leapt up and called to the black hounds. She leashed them and set off for the cliff path. Raphael followed her, cats twining round his legs.
The twins made their way down the treacherous, crumbling cliff path to the shore below. The hounds growled threateningly, hackles raised, while Gabrielle waved a hand at the little boat. The man at the prow began to guide the boat towards them.
Gabrielle turned to her brother. ‘What if…’ she breathed, but did not finish her sentence, for the man was walking through the water towards them. He was tall and slender, his face cold in its eerie perfection. He was like a man made from stone, ice and metal. Different from them, different from the deformed, sick people who passed by Cliff House.
Gabrielle drew back, uncertain. No-one spoke, but the twins were suddenly aware of the cobwebs in their hair and the worn patches on the elbows and knees of their clothes.
‘Good morning,’ the man called.
The twins did not answer. They gazed at the man and smiled nervously as he advanced towards them. His feet did not seem to touch the ground and the sea water had hardly wet his robes. He looked at the twins and then at their home on the cliff top. ‘I wonder if you might help me,’ he said.
The twins exchanged glances. They waited for the man to continue.
‘I am looking for Cliff House and the Blood twins.’
‘Who wants to know?’ Raphael asked.
‘I know of their family,’ the man said.
‘We have no family,’ Gabrielle replied.
The man smiled benevolently. ‘No, you are wrong. In a city in the south, there are other Bloods.’
The twins’ hearts leapt and then fell again. This made everything different and they were not sure how they felt about it. The stranger was as tall and straight as they were. His beauty was eerie and familiar; he looked almost like them. They were frightened, yet fascinated too, filled with a strange kind of yearning.
‘Are you one of us?’ Gabrielle asked.
The man smiled. He held out his hand to her and she shook it tentatively. ‘My name is Nathaniel,’ he said. ‘Nathaniel Blood.’
‘We are Gabrielle and Raphael Blood,’ Gabrielle said.
The man smiled broadly. He swept his arms wide as if to embrace them. ‘I have been searching for you everywhere and by coincidence the sea has cast me up here.’
The twins did not believe in coincidences. Everything had a purpose, otherwise it meant that the chaos and anarchy in the world beyond the village was all for nothing. It meant that there was no reason for the demise of the human race, no reason for its ever having existed. The twins believed in magic and to them, Nathaniel seemed like a magician.
They took him up to Cliff House. As they walked, Gabrielle talked nervously, her voice high and excited, the hounds fighting on their leashes before her. Raphael walked a little behind, stooping now and then to pick up seashells or pieces of coloured glass worn to opacity by the sea. Throughout the day, they showed Nathaniel around the gardens and the house.
As the sun began to set, they had their servant, Hump, cook a huge meal, which they spread out on the scratched oak table in the dining room. Gabrielle lit candles all round the room, and Raphael opened the windows wide to blow the dust and cobwebs away.
The twins drank too much wine. They laughed at secret jokes they could not share with Nathaniel, for all that they tried. Cats jumped up on the table and spilled the wine. Giant ghost moths fluttered and crackled in the candle flames. The twins shone with a vibrant, frenetic beauty: Gabrielle flushed and eager to please and Raphael brooding and quiet, his eyes bright with unasked questions.
Nathaniel studied the twins intently and did not drink the wine. His eyes remained cold throughout the meal, and he flinched when the cats touched him.
As the candle stubs flickered in the late evening breeze, Gabrielle said, ‘What do you do in the city, Nathaniel? Are you an artist, a musician, an architect?’
Nathaniel shook his head. ‘I am a scholar,’ he said. ‘I study people like you.’
‘Like us?’ Gabrielle asked, frowning.
‘Yes. Those special people who are not twisted or deformed.’
The twins looked at one another. They had sometimes wondered why they were tall, straight and healthy in comparison to other people they met, and had decided it must be because of their breeding; something in their blood.
‘Where I come from,’ Nathaniel said, ‘babies are born deformed; two-headed, Siamese twins or hermaphrodites. Many have diseases we cannot cure, and die.’ He leaned towards them a little. ‘In my city, we need people like you. We have to find out what makes you different.’
The twins smiled at the thought of two-headed hermaphrodites. Raphael reached across the table for the wine and refilled the glasses. The wine spilled over the rim of Nathaniel’s glass and splashed on the table.
‘But our family have always been mad,’ Raphael said.
Gabrielle looked dreamy. ‘Yes. Our mother believed…’
Nathaniel interrupted her quickly. ‘If my people could be beautiful once more, I assure you, they would risk insanity.’
‘You are beautiful,’ Gabrielle said. She bit into an apple. ‘Beautiful and clever. We like you.’
Nathaniel laughed his strange, cold laugh. ‘Unfortunately, I wasn’t always like this.’
Gabrielle put her head on one side. ‘What do you mean?’
Nathaniel paused for a moment, then said, ‘My bones have been straightened and reinforced with metal. I have had surgery…’
The twins looked at one another. Raphael fiddled with the buttons on his shirt and Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, then closed it swiftly as if to silence an importunate question. Both twins shifted in their seats, smiled nervously at one another and at Nathaniel. He seemed false now, a lie superimposed upon some deformed, hunched reality.
‘You don’t need us, then,’ Raphael said at last.
‘The process isn’t always successful,’ Nathaniel said in a measured voice. ‘Nine times out of ten it results in death. I was lucky to survive. Also, the operations are very expensive, as well as painful and time-consuming. Sometimes they go horribly wrong and produce only monstrosities. That is why we need people like you.’
‘But what would you do to us?’ Gabrielle asked.
‘Simply run some tests on you, isolate the things that make you different.’ Nathaniel’s mouth smiled. ‘It wouldn’t take long…’
‘Are all our family like you?’ Gabrielle enquired. ‘Metal and plastic, not flesh and blood?’
Nathaniel nodded. ‘They need you. You will be their salvation.’
Gabrielle smiled. It appeared she liked the idea of that.
‘Tell us about them,’ Raphael said.
Nathaniel began to talk. He could feel Raphael’s eyes on him, considering everything he said, half smiling.
Gabrielle listened, entranced. ‘We must write all this down in the family history books,’ she said. ‘We mustn’t drink much more tonight, or we’ll forget what you’ve told us.’
Nathaniel nodded. ‘Very wise.’ He paused. ‘You will come with me, won’t you? You would be with your family. We could look after you and make sure that you want for nothing. After all, what is there here for you, at the end of the world?’
The twins were indecisive. The thought of the city and all its splendours frightened them and yet Nathaniel himself was fascinating. They wanted to be with him, hear his stories. He knew, and had experienced, so many things: a magician who might save them, just as they might save him. If only he would remain here, at Cliff House. If only he did not want them to go away with him.
‘We must carry on the blood-line,’ Gabrielle said.
‘Exactly,’ Nathaniel agreed smoothly. ‘And if you don’t like the city, you can always come back here.’
‘Good,’ Gabrielle said. She rose from the table, took Nathaniel’s hand and led him out onto the terrace, Raphael following. Both twins still carried glasses of sticky wine. Outside, the purple half-light was perfumed with jasmine, roses and the scent of the sea. Night birds called among the trees. The garden was full of dark corners and weird shadows; beautiful but dangerous.
The twins and Nathaniel sat down at a weathered table beneath a desiccated vine. Gabrielle lit candles there.
‘Once I’ve shown you the city,’ Nathaniel said, ‘you’ll realise you live like savages here.’
The twins nodded vaguely, and became silent in the narcotic air. Moths danced around the candle flames and settled on the rims of the wine glasses. Their feet stuck in the sugary liquid, their wings flapping frantically until the cats swiped them into oblivion with delicate, clawed paws. Gabrielle set out a game of solitaire on the table and Raphael lay in the hammock nearby, swinging gently and reading the family history books. From time to time, he glanced sidelong at Nathaniel.
When the twins’ wine glasses had been emptied, Nathaniel produced a package from inside his robes. He unwrapped it and showed the twins its Contents. In a bed of crisp tissue paper lay a stick of something. It looked almost like cinnamon, but with a silvery-grey, crumbly appearance.
‘This is silvertree,’ Nathaniel said. ‘It comes from the bark of a special tree. Let me share its secret with you. Bring me some clear water.’
Raphael went inside and returned with a brimming jug, from which he poured out three measures into the empty glasses. Nathaniel broke the silvertree into three and dropped a piece into each glass. The substance began to dissolve, turning the water a silvery colour.
‘What is it?’ Gabrielle asked. ‘What does it do?’
‘It is good,’ Nathaniel answered. ‘It shows you things.’
‘What things?’ Raphael asked suspiciously.
‘Things you wouldn’t otherwise know,’ Nathaniel smiled. ‘Perhaps you’ll see my city.’ He offered them two of the glasses. ‘Try it.’
He watched the twins swill the liquid round the vessels, as if to dissolve the last pieces of silvertree. Colours drifted through the mixture and faded away. The twins sniffed it, exchanged glances and frowned.
Then Raphael put down his glass. ‘No,’ he said politely. ‘No, thank you.’
But Gabrielle was less cautious. She hoped the silvertree would show her Nathaniel’s city and her family. She wanted to know these things. Without further pause, she lifted the silvertree to her lips and drank deeply. ‘Go on,’ she said to her brother. ‘Do this with me.’
Raphael waited until he saw Nathaniel drain his glass, then drank from his own. After a while, the twins climbed into the hammock together. With eyes half-closed, they began to float, to drift away.
Nathaniel, who had taken silvertree so many times it barely affected him, watched them curiously. He thought of Adam and Eve in their magical garden, founding the human race. He stared at Gabrielle’s slender, elegant body, the curve of her breasts against dusty velvet, the tiny waist encased in silk. Dreaming, the twins seemed to have become a single person; a graceful tangle of arms, legs and blond hair. Their eyes were heavy-lidded, their whispers slurred, as they shared identical visions. Nathaniel considered them objectively. In the house, he had watched them laugh at their hunch-backed servant and entice hapless insects into the candle-flames. He had recoiled from the strange paintings they had daubed. The crooked house itself, with its fecund, untended gardens and startling statues, chilled his blood. And yet, he was intrigued by the twins’ twisted innocence and amoral purity. In their innocence, they would become his tools.
Tomorrow, he would begin his journey home. Now, he was sure the twins would come with him, that he had enchanted them.
Nathaniel leaned back in his chair and sighed in contentment. It was almost too good to be true. He had scarcely believed it when the peddlers had told him of the twins and their cruel perfection. He knew all about their desire to find others of their strange tribe, and if they believed he was of their blood, they would surely go with him. Nathaniel had already made plans.
The boy would be killed, his body frozen and studied to isolate the precious genes that made the twins unique. Eventually, his pure blood would be decanted to fill the twisted veins of an eager recipient. His clear eyes would look out from a new skull. His skin…
The girl they would breed with. And if his people were lucky, the twins might never discover that there were no other Bloods in the city. As far as Nathaniel knew, there were no other Bloods in the world.
The twins were dreaming. They saw wide city streets filled with dancing people who applauded as they passed. Their feet did not seem to touch the ground and their bodies were caressed by the finest silk. Around them, the city was white and silver in the sunlight. There were palaces and mansions, shady parks, galleries and museums. The twins knew that, in this place, they could have anything they desired. The people clamoured to touch them, as if a brief contact could heal them. The twins felt loved, needed and – almost – happy.
But there was something dark behind them. They heard it slithering and creeping, the hiss of its darting forked tongue. It whispered their names, tried to entice them and it reached out to crush them in its coils. Beware the serpent: it tells lies. Lies. It is not what it seems.
The next morning, Nathaniel awoke in his seat on the lawn. The twins were having breakfast: camomile tea in a cracked, willow-patterned tea-pot; sizzling hermaphroditic fish from the poisoned sea and thick slices of home-baked bread. There were cats on the table again; flies buzzed around the food. The twins were wearing thin, white, summery clothes that looked alien on them. Nathaniel thought they must be trying to emulate his appearance. Gabrielle fed the hounds and chattered amiably, while Rapahel read an ancient, paper-backed book, its title obscured by coffee and wine stains. He cut an apple into neat slices with a long-bladed knife.
‘It was nice in the city,’ Gabrielle said. ‘We liked it, but how do we know it’s really like that?’
‘Trust me,’ Nathaniel said.
‘In the dream, everyone loved us,’ Gabrielle said.
Raphael did not look up from his book. ‘Not everyone.’
‘No.’ Gabrielle frowned. ‘Something was after us. Something dark. It wanted to hurt us.’ She smiled. ‘We should stay here, and you should stay with us. It would be better.’
‘I don’t belong here, and neither do you,’ Nathaniel said. ‘You’ll see that when you come to the city. What about meeting your family?’
‘We’re not sure we want to meet them now,’ Gabrielle said. ‘We don’t need them really. We have each other.’
‘You are being silly. There’s nothing to be frightened of.’
Raphael glanced at Nathaniel. ‘We are not going to your city. The thing that followed us in the dream: it was you.’
Nathaniel laughed. ‘Me?’
‘You’re not part of our family at all,’ Raphael said. ‘Are you?’ He laid down his book and stood up. ‘You’re a scientist.’ He spat out the words as if they poisoned him.
‘I told you: I’m a scholar.’
‘Who studies people,’ Raphael murmured. ‘Yes… we know. We understand.’
Nathaniel spoke calmly. ‘I think you’re over-reacting. You’re alone too much.’
‘Then stay here with us,’ Gabrielle said. ‘We want you to. We really do, but we can’t go to the city with you. The visions showed us that.’
Nathaniel looked around at the twisted house and the sprawl of the gardens, nothing beyond them but moors and sea and desolation. He realised how alone he was in this place. When he looked back at the twins, it seemed an unspoken communication passed between them. Raphael’s hand closed around the knife on the table top.
‘Please, don’t go,’ Gabrielle said. ‘Say that you’ll stay.’
‘We’re not going to the city,’ Raphael said. ‘And neither are you.’
‘If we let you go, you’ll tell others about us,’ Gabrielle said.
‘They’ll come for us…’
‘Strap us to tables…’
‘Stick needles in us…
Gabrielle smiled. ‘So, you’ll have to stay with us.’
Nathaniel’s laughter was uneasy now. ‘You’re being ridiculous! You can’t stay here for ever, and I certainly can’t!’
‘Please, don’t say that.’ Gabrielle’s voice was almost a whisper, pleading, desperate. ‘Say that you’ll stay.’
Nathaniel shook his head. ‘I’m sorry. I have to go back.’
Again, a silent message passed between the twins. Nathaniel began to feel uneasy. He did not like the way the twins stared at him, with their identical blue eyes; unreadable expressions on their flawless, heart-shaped faces. The hounds and the cats were looking at him, even the dead moths on the table. Only then did Nathaniel realise the twins did not mean to let him leave.
The knife glittered coldly in Raphael’s hand; the hounds growled softly at Gabrielle’s feet.
Nathaniel rose slowly from his seat. He had to tear himself away from the cage of eyes.
He ran down through the labyrinth of the gardens towards the cliff path, and his boat. He heard the hounds behind them, drawing closer. As the great animals brought him down in the unmown grass, he thought of the twins and their family living here for centuries, isolated and inbred, growing strange and different until they were not like anyone else, until they were barely human at all. Sharp teeth ripped his clothes, his flesh. Fetid breath filled his nostrils.
Then he heard the twins call off the hounds, and opened his eyes to see them standing over him. But before he could stand up, and attempt to escape, Raphael lunged forward. Nathaniel felt the long-bladed knife slide between his ribs, tearing through flesh. He felt the warm spill of blood that flowed out of him, down onto the grass. Raphael leaned forward to pull the knife out, and Nathaniel saw bright splashes of fresh blood spatter the boy’s white summer clothes. The twins looked down at him fearfully, as if they thought he might rear up and bite them. There was blood in their hair, on their faces. As he floated, drifted in his last agony, Nathaniel was glad he would not live to see the twins and their descendants inherit this dying world.
The twins gazed down at Nathaniel’s body, and then at the blood on their white, summer clothes. They put their fingers in the blood and licked them. Nathaniel tasted of chemicals and sterile air. They did not like his taste.
‘But we did like him,’ Gabrielle said sadly.
Raphael wiped the knife clean on his shirt. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘ We did.’
‘Do you think his bones really are plastic?’ Gabrielle asked.
‘We could open him up and see,’ Raphael suggested, but neither twin was really that interested.
About a year after Nathaniel came to Cliff House, Gabrielle gave birth to twins; perfect babies, a boy and a girl. She and Raphael grew fond of walking along the beach with the children. In their white summer clothes, they looked like angels. They sometimes talked about Nathaniel.
‘What if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the apple?’ Raphael mused. ‘What if they had killed the serpent instead?’
Gabrielle nodded, then smiled. ‘What if they never, ever left the garden?’